Saxon Historical Feast – Legend

As I happened to arrive at Hermanstadt precisely seven hundred years later than the German colonists who had founded that city, I had the good-luck to assist at a national festival of peculiarly interesting character.

Of the town’s foundation, old chronicles tell us how the outwanderers, on reaching the large and fertile plain where it now stands, drove two swords crosswise into the ground, and thereon took their oath to be true and faithful subjects of the monarch who had called them hither, and with their best heart’s-blood to defend the land which had given them shelter. The two swords on which this oath was registered were carefully preserved, and sent, one to Broos and the other to Draas—two towns marking the extremities of the Saxonland—there to be treasured up forever. But in consequence of evil times which came over the land, and of the war and bloodshed which devastated it, one of these swords—that of Broos—got lost. But we are told that the other is still to be seen in the church of Draas. It is of man’s length, from which it is argued that these Saxon immigrants were well-grown and vigorous men.

Who this Herman was who gave his name to the city can only be conjectured—probably one of the leaders of the little band, for, as we see by the names of some of the surrounding villages, each has been called after some old German, whose identity has not transpired, as Neppendorf from Eppo, Hammersdorf from Humbert, etc.

Some old chronicles, indeed, tell us that when the Hungarian King Stephen I. was married to Gisela, sister of the German King Henry II., there came in her suite a poor Baron Herman, along with his family, from Nuremberg to Transylvania, and he it was who founded the settlement which later developed into the present town of Hermanstadt. It is said that the first settlement was formed in 1202; likewise that the said Herman lived to the age of a hundred and twenty-five, and was the progenitor of a renowned and powerful race.

Another legend accounts for the foundation of Hermanstadt with the old well-worn tale which has done duty for so many other cities, of a shepherd who, when allowed to take as much land as he could compass with a buffalo’s hide, cut up the skin into narrow strips, and so contrived to secure a handsome property. This particular sharp-witted peasant was, by profession, a keeper of swine; and there is a fountain in the lower town which still goes by the name of the funtine porcolor, or swineherd’s well.

With all these conflicting statements staring one in the face, there did not seem to be (so far as I could learn) any very authentic reason for supposing Hermanstadt to have been founded precisely in 1184; but everybody had apparently made up their minds that such was the case, so the date was to be commemorated by a costumed procession, extensive preparations for which kept the quiet little town in a state of fermentation for many weeks beforehand.

All the tradesmen of the place seemed to have suddenly gone mad, and could hardly be induced to attend to the every-day wants of commonplace mortals whose ancestors had not the prestige of a seven-centuried expatriation. If I went to order a pair of walking-boots, I was disdainfully informed that I could not hope for them that week, as all hands were employed in fashioning high-peaked leather boots of yellow pig-skin for Herman and his retainers. If I looked in at the glove-maker’s I fared no better, for he had lost all interest in pale kids or gants de suède; and the solitary pair of Sarah Bernhardt gloves, hitherto the pride of his show-window, had been ruthlessly cast aside to make way for ponderous gauntlets of heroic dimensions. The tailors would have nothing to do with vulgar coat or trousers, but had soared unanimously to the loftier regions of jerkins and galligaskins; even the tinsmith had lost his mental equilibrium, apparently laboring under the delusion that he was an ancient armorer who could not possibly demean himself by mending a simple modern pudding-mould.

We unfortunate strangers, bootless, gloveless, coatless, and puddingless as we were in those days, had a very hard time of it indeed while this national fever was at its height, and keenly felt the terrible disadvantage of not having been born as ancient Saxons. At last, however, the preparations were complete, and forgetting our privations, we were fain to acknowledge the sight to be one of the most curious and exceptional we had ever witnessed. The old-fashioned streets made a fitting background for this mediæval pageant, in which peasants and burghers, on foot and on horseback; groups of maidens, quaintly attired, plying the distaff as they went along; German matrons, with jewelled head-dresses and cunningly wrought golden girdles; gayly ornamented chariots, bearing the fruits of the field or the trophies of the chase, passed us in solemn procession; while on a sylvan stage erected in the depths of the old oak forest a simple but moving drama set forth the words and actions of the forefathers of those very actors—the German colonists who, seven hundred years previously, had come hither to seek a home in the wild Hungarian forests.

The costumes and procession had been arranged by native artists, and, as a work of art, no doubt many parts of the performance were open to criticism. Some of our fashionable painters would assuredly have turned sick and faint at sight of the unfortunate combinations of coloring which frequently marred the effect of otherwise correctly arranged costumes. Whoever has lived in large towns must have seen such things better done, over and over again; but what gave this festival a unique stamp of originality, not to be attained by any amount of mere artistic arrangement, was the feeling which penetrated the whole scene and animated each single actor.

It is difficult to conceive, as it is impossible to describe, the deep and peculiar impression caused by this display of patriotism on the part of Germans who have never seen their father-land—Rhinelanders who are not likely ever to behold the blue rushing waters of the Rhine. Until now we had always been taught that Germany was inhabited by Germans, France by Frenchmen, and England by Englishmen; but here we have such a complex medley of nationalities as wellnigh to upset all our school-room teaching. Listening to the words of the German drama, we can easily fancy ourselves at Cologne or Nuremberg, were it not for the dark faces of Roumanian peasants pushing forward to look at the unwonted scene, and for the Hungarian uniforms of the gendarmes who are pushing them back.

More primitive but not less interesting than the historical procession just described is the way in which the arrival of these German immigrants is still yearly commemorated in the village of Nadesch. There, on a particular day of the year, all the lads dress up as pilgrims, in long woollen garments, rope girdles, and with massive staves in their hands. Thus attired, they assemble round the flag; a venerable old man takes the lead, beating the drum; and, singing psalms, they go in procession down the street, now and then entering some particularly spacious court-yard, where a dance is executed and refreshments partaken of. A visit to the pastor is also de rigueur, and the procession only breaks up at evenfall, after having traversed the whole village from end to end. When questioned as to the signification of this custom, the people answer, “Thus came our fathers, free people like ourselves, from Saxonia into this land, behind the flag and drum, and with staves in their hands. And because we have not ourselves invented this custom, neither did our ancestors invent it, but have transmitted it to us from generation to generation, so do we, too, desire to hand it down to our children and grandchildren.”

How these Germans came to settle so many hundred miles away from their own country has also formed the subject of numerous tales, none prettier nor more suggestive than their identification with the lost children of Hameln—a well-known German legend, rendered familiar to English readers through Browning’s poem.

“It was in the year 1284” (so runs the tale) “that, in the little town of Hameln, in Westphalia, a strange individual made his appearance. He wore a coat of cloth of many colors, and announced himself as a rat-catcher, engaging to rid the town of all rats and mice for a certain sum of money. The bargain being struck, the rat-catcher drew out of his pocket a small pipe, and began whistling; whereupon from every barn, stable, cellar, and garret there issued forth a prodigious number of rats and mice, collecting in swarms round the stranger, all intent upon his music.

“All the vermin of the place being thus assembled, the piper, still playing, proceeded to the banks of the river Weser, and rolling up his breeches above the knee, he waded into the water, blindly followed by rats and mice, which were speedily drowned in the rushing current.

“But the burghers of Hameln, seeing themselves thus easily delivered from their plague, repented the heavy sum of money they had promised, putting off the payment, under various excuses, whenever the stranger claimed the reward of his labors.

“At last the piper grew angry and went away, cursing the town which had behaved so dishonorably; but he was seen to haunt the neighborhood, dressed as a huntsman, with high-peaked scarlet cap; and at daybreak on the 26th of June, feast of St. John, the shrill note of his pipe was again heard in the streets of Hameln.

“This time neither rats nor mice responded to the summons, for all vermin had perished in the waters of the Weser; but the little children came running out of the houses, struggling out of their parents’ arms, and could not be withheld from following the sinister piper. In this way he led the infantine procession to the foot of a neighboring hill, into which he disappeared along with the children he had beguiled. Among these was the half-grown-up daughter of the burgomaster of Hameln, a maiden of wondrous grace and beauty.

“A nurse-maid who, with a little one in her arms, had been irresistibly compelled to join the procession, found strength enough at the last moment to tear herself away, and, reaching the town in breathless haste, brought the sad news to the bereaved parents. Also one little boy, who had run out in his shirt, feeling cold, went back to fetch his jacket, and was likewise saved from his comrades’ fate; for by the time he regained the hill-side the opening had closed up, leaving no trace of the mysterious piper nor of the hundred and thirty children who had followed him.”

Nor were they ever found again by the heart-broken parents; but popular tradition has averred the Germans who about that time made their appearance in Transylvania to be no other than the lost children of Hameln, who, having performed their long journey by subterranean passages, reissued to the light of day through the opening of a cavern known as the Almescher Höhle, in the north-east of Transylvania.


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